Tips on buying your first car

Our guide to buying your first car, including our top tips on budgeting, choosing the right model and insurance

Sam Naylor
May 28, 2021

Buying a car is always a big moment in your life, but your first car might be the most exciting one of all. After all, your first car is often the one you look back on fondly in later life, as it’s the first time you’ve been free to take yourself wherever you want to go.

Many first-time car buyers are young drivers, but that’s not always the case - maybe you’re an older driver who has passed their test and are looking for a car that fits into your life.

If that’s the case then you can also read our guide on the best cars for first-time drivers, which also covers some example models that we recommend. For young drivers there’s also a handy guide on the site: best first cars.

In this guide we’ll look closer at the buying process rather than a list of cars that we’ve picked out, although we’ll give some examples of models that could work for you, to help you make your decision. Once you’ve read this guide you'll then be ready to go on and make an informed decision about which car is right for you.

Tips for buying a first car

There are a few paths you can go down with buying a first car. Some young drivers are lucky enough to be able to buy new, others will try a newish used model and the rest will go for a model that’s older and a lot cheaper.

Which one is right is pretty much entirely down to your financial situation - a car is important, but it’s not worth getting into huge debt for when there are cheaper options at nearly any budget. Finding decent car finance should also help to keep your monthly payments low.

Getting a really old car for a grand or two is a good option if you really can’t stretch to a newer model or don't have a steady income to secure finance. The risk here is that the car will need costly repairs more often, though there are some cars that resist this trend, such as older examples of Japanese commuter cars.

For most, a newer used car will be much more palatable, as it will come with modern safety systems, in-car tech such as Bluetooth and should be more efficient and reliable. That’s why we recommend that you go for a model that’s as close to new as you can afford - and anything less than three years old will be almost as good as getting a brand new car in most cases.

Budgeting for your first car

Of course, buying a first car isn’t just a case of picking the best car for the job and getting that. It all depends on your budget.

What’s really important to remember is that your budget needs to include everything that comes with running a car as well as the car itself - this is something many people forget.

It’s a good idea to get a rough budget in your head for the car, and then start to work out the other costs as you go along. You can then adjust the budget for the car as you see fit.

For example, you might set a budget and find a model you like, then when you check how much it costs to tax and insure it, you realise you can’t afford it. If that were the case, you'd then need to lower your budget to account for these running costs.

The main costs to consider are road tax, insurance, likely fuel bills and depreciation (this affects those paying with cash and indirectly the monthly payments of those using PCP finance). Other lesser factors include prices for consumables such as tyres and servicing costs, though these aren’t massively variable for the kinds of cars you’ll usually be able to get as a first car.

Insurance is a huge cost for young drivers so we’ll look more closely at that in the next section, but let’s look at road tax, fuel economy and depreciation to help you set a budget.

To find out how much a car costs to tax, you may need to know the official CO2 emission figure. If it was made after April 2017 then you pay a flat rate of £150 per year (or £140 if it’s a hybrid, or nothing if it’s electric).

If it was made between 2001 and 2017, then you can check the government website and cross-reference the car’s CO2 figure to find out how much it costs each year.

While you’re checking the CO2 output (this can be done on manufacturer websites or using this DVLA tool - if you have the number plate of a specific car to hand), check the miles per gallon figure, too. You can work out how much it’s going to cost per year by thinking about how many miles you’ll do and how much petrol or diesel costs.

To do this, divide the number of miles you expect to cover per year by the mpg figure to work out how many gallons of fuel you're likely to get through. Once you've done this, multiply that figure by 4.546 to get the number of litres that equates to. Then you can multiply that by the cost of fuel per litre where you normally fill up. Be aware that your real fuel spend could be notably more than this, as until recently official fuel economy figures were very unrealistic and hard to achieve in everyday driving.

Depreciation is harder to find but luckily if you purchase on PCP finance, you don't need to worry about this, as it's already been taken into account in the monthly payments - the finance company offers quotes based upon what they expect the car to be worth at the end of the contract. If you’re buying with cash, meanwhile, you'll typically benefit from buying cars that are three years old cars or older, as it's newer cars that lose value quickest. Once past this point, the value of the car falls more slowly, so you're effectively losing less per month.

Think about when you’ll likely want to sell the car and change to another one, and look at the difference in values on classified sites for cars that are that amount older. It’s not an exact science but this can help you to make a more informed decision.

Insuring your first car

Getting car insurance is one of the most expensive and frustrating aspects of purchasing your first car. Young drivers’ premiums are sky high and there’s very little you can do about it. So, it's wise to choose a car that is relatively cheap to insure in the first place.

The most important thing to do here is get insurance quotes before you even consider getting a car. If you find a car you like and have done the other financial calculations, get an insurance quote. It could be thousands of pounds - or cost notably less than other similar models - and would drastically alter your budget.

It's a big hassle to buy a car and then realise you can’t afford to insure it, so always get a quote before you buy any car. That goes for anyone, not just first-time drivers.

Opting for a model that’s in a low insurance group is a good starting point, as these are usually the cheapest to insure - cars with low-powered engines and relatively recent small cars that cost little to buy, such as the Volkswagen Up and Kia Picanto, are good examples.

Other things you can try to keep your insurance costs low are calling up insurance brokers that only operate on the phone after you’ve used the comparison sites. Sometimes they can offer better deals over the phone.

Black box policies are another cost-saving factor, though now that most young drivers have them as a condition of their insurance, it’s likely you’ve already considered this. These boxes monitor your driving and if you drive smoothly then you can potentially save money.

Choosing the right first car

Choosing the right make and model is both the first thing you should do and the last. As we’ve discussed above, you need to have a budget, which informs which models are available to you.

Yet in order to work out a realistic budget you need to choose a car as an example first. So the best thing to do in your research is to pick a car and then use it as an example that can inform your next choice, and so on. If the insurance on the second car is half that of the first one, you can focus on the second one until you find something better.

Picking a car can be as simple as liking the look of one, but there are a number of important things that are worth considering when you are looking at which model to get - we’ll put aside the financial considerations as those have been discussed above.

The size is an important factor. As a first-time driver you’ll most likely want a smaller car, as these are typically easier to drive and park and cheaper to fuel. Pick a model with good visibility and it’ll be easier to get used to seeing where to place it on the road as you get used to driving.

Yet if you’re an older driver and need a car for practicality rather than simple mobility, think about how much space there is inside and how big the boot is. Pick a model that can fit the people and luggage you plan to carry inside. All the data you need is online, and car reviews tend to have explanations of interior space. However, always research the car yourself to make sure it fits your needs.

If you do go for a larger car as a first car, it would be a good idea to choose a model with parking sensors and a reversing camera, as these features make it much easier to park, which is one of the hardest things to get used to as a new driver.

It’s also worth considering the controls, as some cars are easier to drive than others. Small cars like the Volkswagen Up tend to have light, simple controls that make them much simpler to drive. Larger SUVs such as the Dacia Duster may be practical but the lack of visibility and slightly awkward controls make them more of a task to operate for less confident drivers.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to check that a potential new car has the features that you want included, such as Bluetooth to connect your phone, sat-nav or USB ports. Check that you like the interior too, as you’ll spend a lot of time inside.

Reliability is another factor that’s partly financial - but it’s also important for peace of mind. Certain models are more reliable than others, so do some research online before you buy. Luckily for first-time drivers, most small cars are very reliable and are produced in such great numbers that they are cheap to fix, too.

 

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